Over time, several people have asked me about significant events that have shaped my journey and theology as a Christ-follower over the past 50ish years. Some of those events are scattered throughout this blog. One, however, is not – the story of how I got involved with Young Life back in the summer of 1973. As I have alluded previously, my involvement with Young Life over the past five decades has had a most significant affect on my theology and my journey to becoming a “practical theologian.”
In a recent conversation with a friend, I shared the providential story that led to my involvement with Young Life. He encouraged me to write a blog post, sharing the story. Key to the story (and totally unbeknownst to him) was a gentleman named Andy “Goldbrick” Delaney. Let me tell you a bit about Goldbrick…
As the story goes, in May 1951 the founder of Young Life, Jim Rayburn, met Andy “Goldbrick” Delaney and his wife, Jerry, in Harvey Cedars, New Jersey while speaking at a camp. Goldbrick and his wife worked for a Philadelphia catering company. “Next thing you know,” Jerry said, “he’s asking us if we’d come work for him at a big kids’ camp out in Colorado. We said ‘no,’ so he said he was going to put us on his prayer list.”
“Andy and I looked at each other, both knowing what the other was thinking. ‘This guy is crazy. Put us on a prayer list?'”
The Delaneys didn’t know what it was like to be in Jim’s prayers! Within a month the they were working at Frontier Ranch in Colorado! In an early conversation between Rayburn and his new cook, Jim said, “Camp travels on its stomach. You can have the best program in the world, but if you don’t have good food, the program isn’t going to be any good.” Goldbrick looked at him and said, “Boss, it’ll be good.” And it was. And still is. Today Young Life camps are known for the quality of their meals.
Fast forward a couple decades. In my early twenties, I began attending a church plant in our community. A couple, Dave and Donna, invited me to consider helping start the youth group at the church. I said I would be interested, but it would have to be significantly different than my youth group experiences as a kid. I was bored to death by adult leaders who didn’t seem all that interested in getting to know us kids or discovering what interested us. They took a risk with me, giving me free reign to do what seemed right to me and God’s prompting. (I think of the early church leaders saying It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us… Acts 15:28).
So, Dave, Donna, and I got all the young people from our church together (6th-12th grade, all TWELVE of them!) to talk about kicking off our youth group. Though I had no idea how to do it, I told the kids I wanted us to create something that any kid in our community would feel safe attending and want to come back. The kids (as well as Dave and Donna) bought into the vision and we brainstormed what it could look like.
We kicked things off in February 1973. 40-50 kids came to everything we did – for a while. By the end of the semester we were back to the original twelve kids.
After the obligatory period of beating myself up for a failed experiment, I began to connect with some of the high school kids with whom I had built a relationship. I was interested in knowing why they quit coming. My goal wasn’t to get them to come back, but to discover what we might have been missing so we could make it better. Looking back, it was a form of Design Thinking before it became a thing.
Each of the kids I “interviewed” said basically the same thing. They liked coming to our stuff but it wasn’t their church and their parents wouldn’t let them attend. “But you don’t go to church,” I retorted. “No, but our parents don’t want us to go to your church,” was the common response. (People were much more parochial in the 70s.)
I went back to Dave and Donna with my findings. I told them we needed to start something non-denominational. They asked me if I had ever heard of Young Life. I said, “No,” asking them what it was. They had observed Young Life at a weekend ski camp at Frontier Ranch a few years prior. This is their story, a very providential encounter…
Dave and Donna were on a ski vacation, driving somewhere between Colorado Springs and Buena Vista, CO, on a Friday afternoon. They came upon a man with a broken-down station wagon. It was Andy “Goldbrick” Delaney. He was on his way to cook for a weekend ski camp at Frontier Ranch. He was running late and didn’t even have time to deal with his car. So Dave and Donna offered to take him to Frontier Ranch so he could get started on the weekend meals.
As a “Thank You” to Dave and Donna, Goldbrick invited them to stay the weekend in the adult guest lodge. They got to participate in all the activities, enjoy the meals, and witness Club (like chapel, they said, but nothing like chapel). They couldn’t believe the camp facilities. They couldn’t believe the food. They couldn’t believe how obviously far from God many of the kids seemed. They couldn’t believe how engaged the leaders were with the kids.
And they couldn’t believe Club. They told me that 300 kids were fully engaged – singing up a storm, roaring with laughter at the goofy program humor. But what really struck Dave and Donna was the attentiveness of the 300 kids when the speaker took the stage to talk about Jesus and his deep interest in them. “You could hear a pin drop,” was Donna’s description.
I was hooked and wanted to know more. In the words of John Wesley, “I felt my heart strangely warmed.” I needed to find out about this Young Life thing, which is yet another story. That will be the next blog post. So, stay tuned.